Irish 1840’s – 1910

Cincinnati was a major destination for immigrants from Ireland who were starving as a result of potato failures in their country beginning in the mid-1840s. The city offered opportunities for work on the riverfront, digging for the Miami and Erie Canal, and on railroad construction. Desperate to feed their families when they arrived in the Queen City, the Irish took jobs that were dangerous and unskilled with low pay. Many became policemen and firemen after the Civil War.

Even though these new immigrants were white, Christian, and spoke English, they were unwanted and discriminated against by Cincinnati residents who had come earlier. Signs that read “No Irish need apply” enforced discrimination. Protestants in Cincinnati were critical of the Irish immigrants because the majority were Catholic, had families with many children, and celebrated the Sabbath at festive picnics and in saloons that served alcohol. However, the Irish showed their fierce loyalty to their adopted country during the Civil War when the military ranks were led by soldiers who spoke with an Irish brogue [accent]. By the end of the nineteenth century, immigrant families were proud to be Irish and were accepted by the majority of residents.


The Irishmen Dickens saw in 1842 were part of the influx of foreign born that, soon swelling to vast proportions, tripled the population of Cincinnati. At the time of Dickens’ visit, there were only a thousand Irishmen in Cincinnati, . . . [but] it was not long before the city began to lose its exclusively American character. By 1851 Ohioans, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, New Jerseyites, Virginians, Marylanders, and a smattering of [few] New Englanders composed only 54 per cent of the city’s residents. By 1851 . . . Germans made up 28 percent of the total; Irish 12 per cent; English, 4 per cent; and Negroes and others 2 percent. (Lewis)

Beginning in 1846 a potato blight [disease] drove thousands of Irish from their homeland. Many of them comprised the second group of immigrants to reach Cincinnati. Like the Germans, the Irish organized to meet their needs. They formed several militia units, which became the core of the Ohio 10th Regiment in the Civil War, and, in 1849, The Hibernian Society to assist the Irish here and those left behind. Unlike the Germans, the Irish were mostly of peasant backgrounds. They did not bring the skills and experience that would allow them rapid adjustment to American and urban life (Fig. 1, Fig. 2, Fig. 3 and Fig. 4). Consequently, the Irish were poorer and less secure than the Germans. (Hurley)

It took the great potato famines of the 1840s to bring the Irish in large numbers; by 1850 there were 13,616 of them here. (Lewis) Many Americans also viewed as dangerous the loyalties of the immigrants to their homeland and to European institutions—especially the Roman Catholic Church Fig. 6. This distrust was expressed in several ways. Judge Bellamy Storer required Irish Catholics who were applying for citizenship to swear on and kiss the Protestant Bible. Office holders routinely gave native-born Americans preference when hiring for publicly financed construction jobs… immigrants regularly found themselves the objects of violence. (Hurley)

The native-born residents watched this influx of new people closely and fearfully . . . These foreign people seemed to carry the threat of labor unrest, intemperance, illiteracy, pauperism and crime. . . German and Irish customs sometimes conflicted with those of the Americans. Native-born Cincinnatians found the way immigrants observed the Sabbath particularly aggravating. Yet, the newcomers thought the American Protestant Sunday—with no entertainment, no saloons, and no theaters—was drab and oppressive. Americans mistakenly concluded that the complex of ethnic societies showed that the immigrants wanted to share in the wealth of America without becoming “American.” (Hurley)

In this fertile ground Know Nothingism took root and wrought [produced] its toll in disturbed passions. Employers posted signs bluntly stating, “No Irish wanted.” Talk against Catholics and “foreigners” became rife [widespread]. And brutal words led to brutal actions. (Lewis)

Such anti-foreign sentiment reached its peak in the early 1850s, poisoning the city’s political climate. In 1854 one newspaper ridiculed the Democratic Party with a mock “Holy Church Democratic State Ticket” slating Pope Pius IX for “Supreme Judge” and Bishop John Baptist Purcell for the board of public works (Fig. 5). [John Baptist Purcell was an Irish immigrant Catholic priest who was first the Bishop of Cincinnati. After 1850 he became the Archbishop, serving the southwest quadrant of Ohio for 50 years from 1833 until 1883]. (Hurley)

The attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, transformed the mood of the city [and was the beginning of the Civil War]. Militia companies that already existed quickly became the core of fighting regiments . . . the city’s Irish residents became the backbone of the 10th OVI regiment. (Hurley)

Literature Sources

1) Hurley, Daniel. Cincinnati the Queen City. Cincinnati: The Cincinnati Historical Society, 1982.

2) Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and its Neighbors (The WPA Guide). Cincinnati: The Wiesenhart Press, 1943.


Fig. 1, Fig. 2, Fig. 5 The Cincinnati Museum Center, Irish Immigrants file.

Fig. 3, Fig. 4 Kraemer, A. O. and G. A. Kraemer. Kraemer’s Picturesque Cincinnati: Cincinnati: A. O. and G. A. Kraemer, 1898.

Fig. 6 Cincinnati Satint Patrick Parade archives